Central Cortez Coast

View of Santa Rosalia,
and El Boleo copper smelter.

At the eastern edge of the Vizcaíno Desert, Highway 1 climbs and winds its way over and around the flanks of a range of dormant volcanoes, their cones rising thousands of feet above the road, and plunging more than six thousand feet from their peaks to the sea. The road plunges likewise, like a roller coaster, through narrow passes, down steep grades and around breathtaking curves. Suddenly, the Sea of Cortez hangs in the air like a blue jewel dangling before your eyes. But, this is no place to take your eyes off the road, nor to count on a guardrail to save you if you've neglected to check your brakes.

The palm trees of Mulege,
viewed from Highway 1.

The final descent from the mountains completes the highway's crossing of the Baja Peninsula, from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of California (the unromantic and unpopular official name for the Sea of Cortez).

At the foot of the mountains lies Santa Rosalía, a seaport town of some ten thousand people, tying the highway to the northern end of a 150-mile scenic drive along the central Cortez coastline. From here, cars, trucks and passengers can also take an eight-hour ferry trip to Guaymas, on the Mexican mainland.

Baja is full of surprises, and Santa Rosalía has its share. The town was built in the 1880's, not by Spaniards or Mexicans, but by the French mining company, El Boleo, a business subsidiary of the Rothschild family.

El Boleo ran a copper mining and smelting operation here until1954, when the Mexican government took it over, finally shutting it down three decades later when widespread arsenic poisoning became evident in the local population. The smelter complex still looms above the highway, dominating the waterfront.

Squareriggers hauled coal and coke from Europe to fuel the smelters well into the 20th century, making Santa Rosalía one of the world's last outposts in the age of sail.

View of Bahia Concepcion,
from Coyote Bay.

Wood is scarce in Baja, but most of the town's older houses are built of lumber, shipped south from Oregon and Washington on the barges that delivered cargoes of smelted ore to refineries in the Pacific Northwest.

The town's church, prefabricated from galvanized iron, was designed by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel for use in tropical Africa. It was first displayed at the 1889 Paris World Fair, alongside the Eiffel Tower. A Boleo official found the church stored in pieces, bought it, shipped it, and had it re-assembled for use by Boleo employees.

The best baguettes in Baja are said to come from the local bakery. And, the gas pumps at Santa Rosalía's Pemex station are reputed to be the most dishonest in all of Baja, although that claim is open to question.

The small town of Mulegé, about an hour south on Highway 1, is more in the tradition of a Mexican beach resort. Its palm-lined estuary, narrow, unpaved streets, and miles of nearby beaches make it an attractive stop for tourists and expatriates looking for unsurpassed fishing, diving and leisurely living.

Although north of the Tropic of Cancer, Mulegé has the tropical ambience of southern Baja, with pleasant, sunny winters and hot, humid summers. Services are limited, and things move slowly in Mulegé.

The only bank in town closed its doors some years ago, promising to reopen after the streets were paved. The town is waiting to pave its streets, until after the bank reopens.

Views of Bahia Concepcion.

Late one night, I reached San Ignacio after driving all day from San Quintín in my overloaded Volkswagen bus. But, I was determined to bypass San Ignacio's overpriced La Pinta, and try for the popular and more reasonable El Morro, a nice hotel set on a bluff above the beach just south of Santa Rosalía.

When I got there, its lights were out. It was closed, for no apparent reason. Reluctant to backtrack, I pushed on in the dark to take my chances in Mulegé. After a frustrating time negotiating Mulegé's maze of narrow one-way streets, fearing for my squished tires as they bounced along the ruts from rock to pothole, I found a place to park and struck out on foot.

Within half an hour, I had covered the whole town. I found only one available room, at the Las Terrazas Hotel. For twenty dollars, the room was large and airy and quiet, spotless but for peeling paint, air conditioned, well furnished, with hot water and modern plumbing. I had my choice of two beds, and both were comfortable.

There was secure parking for the loaded bus. Outside my door was a large terrace with a view of Mulegé. Downstairs was a cozy bar, where a friendly patron insisted on buying me a cold Negra Modelo. The bartender directed me to the best steak and seafood dinner in town, a delicious bargain. I slept well that night.

Dust devil near Loreto.

My next visit was not so pleasant. I was cruising along in my car, faster than I should have been, but it was a sunny afternoon, and traffic was light as I approached Mulegé. The road was in excellent shape, and fifty miles per hour did not seem excessive.

As I rounded the last gentle downhill curve south of town, I was suddenly facing one of the largest topes I had ever seen. This unexpected speed bump was the size of a tree trunk, newly laid across the highway, and unmarked.

I braked, but there was no time to stop. The car crashed over the bump, but kept rolling as my head hit the roof. I felt lucky not to have broken an axle, or worse. Unmarked topes are an ever-present hazard on the Baja Highway, and the marked ones are bad enough.

Loreto beach view.

A beautiful two-hour drive takes the southbound traveler to the banks of Conception Bay, a spectacular body of water that extends along the Cortez coastline for more than thirty miles south of Mulegé.

Sheltered from the Sea of Cortez by the long arm of Peninsula Concepción, the bay, unpolluted by any major cities or industries, is said to be among the cleanest in the world, and it teems with aquatic life. However, its pristine qualities are threatened by its popularity among RV enthusiasts, campers, kayakers and sport fishermen, and many of its more accessible beaches are crowded with tourists during the winter season.

Cameras cannot capture the blueness of the bay. The blues shine in every shade, rimmed with white beaches and lavender headlands that bristle with forests of giant cardón cactus. The water's surface, rippled with patches of breeze, is punctured from below by dozens of cactus-whiskered islands.

Loreto: Head and Mother of the Missions
of Lower and Upper California.

South of the bay is Loreto, a small but growing center for fishing and tourism, with modern markets and shops, vacation housing developments, two Pemex stations and a variety of hotels and restaurants.

On the coast just south of Loreto are Nopoló and Puerto Escondido, which the Mexican tourist agency Fonatur is attempting to develop along the lines of the resort zones in Cancún and Los Cabos. Loreto, however, is no recent development.

After 167 years of failed attempts, the first permanent European settlement in the Californias was established at Loreto in 1697, by Jesuit priest and explorer Juan María Salvatierra.

It was from here that Franciscan Padre Junipero Serra set out in 1769 on his northward journey to San Diego Bay in Alta California, where he founded the first of his famous string of mainland "California" missions. Loreto served as the capital of all the Californias until 1829, when hurricane floods destroyed most of the town, forcing relocation of the capital to La Paz.

The mission church was one of the few structures to survive the storm. It has been fully restored, and is still in use today. An inscription above its entrance proclaims the Loreto mission as "Head and Mother of the Missions of Lower and Upper California."

Highway 1, south of Loreto.

South of Loreto, the highway is smooth and narrow, running overland in long, straight stretches, then snaking back again across the headlands, twisting, rising and falling, high above the turquoise panorama, then back again to water's edge, before finally turning inland to climb the Sierra de la Giganta on its way to Ciudad Constitución and La Paz.

This is also where a new kind of Mexican troop had decided to set up today's roadblock. This time it was customs agents, rising to the bait of a bearded gringo in an old VW hippie wagon.

First, they want to know, "What's that?", pointing at the TV set wrapped in a blanket and belted into the passenger's seat. Then, where am I going and why, and what am I packing, and is it staying in Mexico and do I have customs papers.

So, I lie and tell them that the customs inspectors looked at everything in Tijuana, and said all I had to declare was my computer (which was in fact the one thing I did declare in Tijuana, so I would at least have a piece of paper to show, should a situation like this arise).

I show them my customs receipt for the sixty dollars I paid to Hacienda (the Mexican I.R.S.) back in Tijuana. The English-speaking one examines the receipt, frowns and snaps, "Do you have a fax?" and I say, "No, no fax." Looking disappointed, he pokes his eyes through the windows one more time, hands back my papers and waves me on.

Foothills of the Sierra de la Giganta.

Realizing I'm low on gas, and finding myself on the wrong side of Loreto, I ask how far to the next Pemex station. About an hour and forty-five minutes, he says. So I ask, can I pull over on the wide shoulder ahead and empty the gas cans strapped to my roof into my tank. He says, "Why not," as if, what a foolish question, of course I can pull over and fill my tank.

Then, within minutes, the cans barely untied and not half emptied, one of the rifle-toting agents walks across the highway to inform me that the approaching tanker truck wants to "work" where I'm parked, so I tell him I'll hurry and move.

Rest stop south of Loreto.

Before either of us can move, the tanker truck pulls around us on the wide shoulder and with something like a fire hose proceeds to spray what I hope is only water to dampen the dust, sprays water on the dusty shoulder, and on the lower third of the bus, and on the rifle-toting customs agent, and on me, splattering our legs with what is, yes, only water, fresh water, it seems, from the taste of the splash on my face.

The startled customs agent thrusts his automatic rifle with both hands high above his head, jumps and howls like a child caught by an unexpected lawn sprinkler.

The tanker truck proceeds back onto the highway, and the water it sprayed on the dusty shoulder and on our legs is dried and reunited with the soft atmosphere of the Baja noonday before the truck has lumbered out of sight.

In Baja, the work is never done. This fact will remain, so long as road crews spray water on roadsides in the tropical noonday sun to settle the dust. Sooner or later, all human effort returns to dust. Why pretend otherwise?

Why not just sprinkle a little water on the dust now and then, if only to anoint the truth of the matter. And anointing it is, the spraying of fresh water on a dusty desert roadside in the Baja noonday sun, for in Baja, nothing is more precious than water, or more common than dust.

Sea of Cortez islands,
from the Sierra de la Giganta.

Meanwhile, long before such deep thoughts could gather in my dusty brain, the customs agents with their automatic rifles have waved through a mile-long caravan of shiny, behemoth RV's, without so much as a glance or a question to the gringos inside, and now the one who speaks English is asking me how much it would cost to buy a combi, a VW bus like mine, "with the house built inside it."

His friend would like to buy one some day. I tell him mine is nothing special, it cost me only fifteen hundred U. S. dollars. He translates to his friend, and nods thoughtfully as he rubs the well-worn butt of his rifle, as if it were his chin.

"My combi is very old," I add, "and not very fancy."

"Ah, yes," says the thoughtful one, "but it is very good."

I can see that they are no longer customs agents, but teenagers with fantasies of taking to the open road. I hand them half a bag of Hershey's chocolate kisses, which they eagerly accept, bid them adiós, and head on toward the cactus covered mountains, climbing into the afternoon sun.


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